DATE February 21, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Karen Armstrong discusses her new book "Buddha"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.
Most people think of Buddha as an icon, an archetypical religious symbol of
enlightenment, not a man of flesh and blood. In her new book, "Buddha,"
legion historian Karen Armstrong gives a name and a family and a context to
the man that gave rise to Buddhism. Karen Armstrong's books include "The
Battle for God," "A History of God" and "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths."
She's a former Roman-Catholic nun who teaches at Leo Baeck College for the
Study of Judaism. Terry spoke with Karen Armstrong recently about her new
TERRY GROSS reporting:
You say in your book that some Buddhists might say that to write a
autobiography of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, is a very un-Buddhist thing
to do. Why would that be un-Buddhist?
Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG ("Buddha"): Well, all his life, the Buddha, was appalled
at the idea of personal cults. He thought that by depending too much upon an
authority figure, however august or splendid that figure might be, you were
going to impede your spiritual development, keep yourself in an unworthy state
of infantile dependence. And he always said that his life was not important,
his experience was not important. What was important was his teaching which
he called his duma, his teaching, which he guaranteed if pursued by a serious
seeker would bring human beings to a sort of supernatural sacred piece.
GROSS: Now you say that a lot of Buddhists would say it's kind of pointless
to write a biography of the Buddha because it's not about his life; it's about
his teachings. So why did you want to write a biography of Buddha?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, first of all, I think he's wonderful. I've always
thought he's wonderful. And I think we've got a huge amount to learn from
him, but it's not quite true what I said about the Buddhists being unconcerned
about the Buddha's spiritual journey, his story, because he always claimed
that his was an autobiographical philosophy. He always told his disciples that
he would never ask them to do anything that he hadn't done himself.
And so there are some aspects of the Buddha's life that have always been very
important to Buddhists and those I've emphasized in my own little biography.
Those moments are when he left home and decided to pursue the spiritual life
and gave up worldly life, his long struggle to find enlightenment, going from
one teacher to another until he decided he would depend upon himself. Then
the process of enlightenment when he actually experienced a reality that he
called nirvana and became a Buddha, a man who had woken up to the full
potential of humanity and his decision to teach. That was always very
important to the Buddha, and finally his death.
But the people of India, when they spoke about the Buddha's life, were
concerned not with writing the sort of biography that we write today where we
try to find out exactly what happened when. They were interested always in
the meaning of this life, and they told the Buddha's life story to help other
people, help other Buddhists gain their own enlightenment. By watching the
way the Buddha had done it, you would learn how you yourself could become
GROSS: Oh, here's a stupid question. Was there anything resembling Buddhism
before the Buddha?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: There were a number of developments in India that the Buddha
used certainly. And he himself always claimed like any sage of antiquity that
his teaching was not original. It's only in our own day that we put such
great importance on being absolutely original. He said that in the very
earliest days, human beings had known that this was the best way to live. He
had rediscovered what he called `an ancient path.'
GROSS: Do all the different sex of Buddhism generally agree that Siddhartha
Gautama was the founder of the Buddhism or is there some controversy over
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No, I think all of them revere the Buddha and see him as
crucial, but it's a bit different from the way we are in, say, Christianity.
If it was discovered that, for example, the Buddha had never existed, it
wouldn't make much difference to the Buddhist religion because the important
thing is the method and not the personality and the method that's been found
to work. Whereas if Christians found that Jesus hasn't existed, that really
would be trouble. So we must see him in that way.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is religion scholar Karen
Armstrong and her new book is called "Buddha" and it's a biography of the
What kind of family was the Buddha born into?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, again, we don't quite know that for certain, but he must
have belonged to one of the upper echelons of society. He had a comfortable
home. We know he had cousins. He had a wife. And when he left home at 29,
his wife had just given birth to a little boy, and so he left his wife and his
son. He left his mother and father who were getting on in years to embark on
the holy life.
GROSS: Now that's a very extreme thing to do at the age of 29, to leave your
wife and newborn son and hit the road, you know, to try to have a more
spiritual life. What kind of problem was he having with domestic life?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, he said that when he looked around his father's home,
it felt sort of cramped and crowded and dusty, he said. It seemed to be
filled with things that pulled at his heart, that made him cling to the things
of this world. And he, like many, many other people in India at this time,
were beginning to feel that this world was something that had to be
transcended. People were feeling a great despair, a spiritual vacuum. And
all over north India, around the Ganges Plain, young men and even a few women
were leaving their families in this way and adopting a lifestyle that they
called homelessness, going without the ordinary comforts, going and trying to
get beyond desire, beyond the egotism of desire, which they said held them
back from their potential.
GROSS: Where did they go? I mean, they didn't hitchhike to California or go
to India. They were already there. Where did they go?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, they generally took to the road. They took refuge in
the forests, the forests of wonderful, big trees around the Ganges Plain that
had still not been cleared. But they also, and the Buddha himself, spent a
lot of time not in remote hermitages or shrines but in the great, new,
thriving industrial towns. India was undergoing a huge economic revolution
and this was what had caused the spiritual crisis because the old ideas no
longer worked in this rather aggressive mercantile economy and they were big,
new kingdoms coming up. And the Buddha spent most of his life in the new
developing cities because he wanted to bring his message to suffering humanity
and it was in the cities that people were feeling most dislocated and lost.
GROSS: Now some people might find it a pretty unacceptable thought that you
would leave your family and a newborn child to seek a spiritual life. You
point out that Jesus had something very comparable to that. What was it?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, Jesus said, `If you want to be my disciple, you must
leave your wife and your family. Leave the dead to bury their dead. Leave
your old people and come and follow me.' And this was a characteristic of
spiritual leaders at this time. It was a very momentous time in the religious
history of humanity. Socrates has very little time for women or family life,
neither did Confucius, both of whom who were sort of related in time to the
And so I myself, of course, at the age of 17 heard this call of Jesus as I
thought and went off, left my family and embraced celibacy and became a
Catholic nun. So that call to single-heartedness was very typical of the
time, particularly in India, and people respected it. People of India can be
as materialistic as anybody else but they have a great respect for those who
do seek the spiritual life. And they didn't see these people as irresponsible
dropouts; they saw them as pioneers who were bravely and often at great cost
to themselves trying to find a spiritual solution for people who were
beginning to succumb to a kind of despair, to sorrow and a feeling that they
were trapped in an unacceptable spiritual situation.
GROSS: Karen Armstrong has written a new biography called "Buddha." Let's
take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Karen Armstrong is my guest and her books include the best-selling "A
History of God." Her new book is a biography of Buddha called "Buddha."
Where did the Buddha go when he left home at the age of 29?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, first he set out and went to the new kingdom of
Rajigaha(ph) but then he took the roads. The Ganges Plain was undergoing a
political revolution as well as a social and economic one. And two great
kingdoms had appeared which was swallowing up the smaller and more ineffective
kingdoms. It was a very aggressive world. These kings had big armies. They
were able to exercise great control over their population and be more
efficient, therefore, but as a result people in India were very worried about
the new ruthlessness. And all of them were trying to find a new way of living
that was modern but which also sort of tried not to harm people, not to
trample on people as seemed to be happening.
So the Buddha went straight into these new developing kingdoms--Magada(ph) and
Kosala. He went to the cities and there he went and there he eventually
found himself a teacher. He found himself a teacher who began to introduce
him to the principles of spirituality.
GROSS: What kind of teacher was this?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: His name was Alarah Kalama(ph). And he taught a bit out of
the mainstream kingdoms. He taught a philosophy called Sumkia(ph) as far as
know which we don't need to go into now, but mostly he taught yoga. And so he
inducted Gautama into the practices of yoga which is very different from the
kind of yoga we practice today in our gyms or in the West.
GROSS: What was it like then?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: It was an assault on egotism, an assault on the self. It was
designed ruthlessly to take the `me' out of our thinking. Before you began to
meditate, you had to undergo a lengthy series of mental, physical and moral
disciplines, learning as I say, not to live so aggressively. When you'd
finally mastered this morality and this self control and degree of serenity,
then you could start. You had to sit in an absolute stillness. Now we human
beings, we're very rarely still. We're always shifting about even in sleep,
but the yogin sits absolutely motionless, so he looks more like a statue or a
plant. Then next, he refuses to breath. Breathing is the most basic of our
animal human functions, but the yoga practices a special kind of breathing
which has all kinds of physiological as well effects on the personality and
induces a sense of calm practitioners have found. And finally, you begin
these extremely difficult exercises of concentration which enable you not to
look at objects through a sort of veil of subjectivity: How do these things
affect me? Do I like them? Do they make me feel secure? But to see things
as they are, and then you are beginning to be ready if you are very, very
skilled because this was hard. You were beginning to be ready for the highest
states which some teachers thought would bring you to enlightenment in
GROSS: But practicing this extreme form of yoga didn't bring the Buddha to
Ms. ARMSTRONG: He was always very happy with yoga and yoga would play a
crucial part in Buddhism, but he found that he couldn't accept Alarah Kalama,
his teacher's interpretation of the yoga experience. Alarah Kalama said that
when you had entered the higher reaches of yoga, the highest stages of trance,
you had encountered what the people of north India called `your Self' with
a capital S, that this was a transcendent part of your self that was at one
with the ultimate principle of the universe. We would say God. You are
finding the divine within yourself. It was absolute reality.
Now Gautama said, `Yes, I've attained these higher states, but I can't believe
I've found this self. This is not absolute. I've engineered this experience
for my self by means of my own expertise as a yogin. You can't manipulate the
divine like that.' `Secondly,' he said, `this is only temporary. When I come
back to my self after my trance, I'm still the same old person that I was
before. I'm still full of lust. I'm still full of mean, spiteful thoughts.
I'm still full of desire. I haven't change. This isn't nirvana.' So he left
Alarah Kalama. And this was one of the great things that characterized
Gautama was his energy. And he would never accept, never accept anybody
else's word for it. He would have been horrified by the idea that we should
take things on faith or accept the authority of an older wiser person. `You
must make these doctrines work for you or they won't work at all,' he said.
GROSS: What was his concept of nirvana, of enlightenment, and when did he
actually formulate his concept of it?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, there were lots of theories about what was this ultimate
reality that everyone was seeking, but nirvana really is very similar to what
monotheists call God, except that monotheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims have
personalized this and think of God as a personality. The Buddhists don't do
this. The people of India in general don't do this.
Nirvana is a state which you find within yourself of absolute peace. It's
beyond the reach of selflessness. It's transcendent because it goes beyond
the self. It's a state that we can't imagine, those of us who are
unenlightened because our lives are conditioned by selfishness, by sorrow, by
The peace that you would find in nirvana monotheists would say was introducing
you to the presence of God and that it enabled you to suffer but to live in
peace in the midst of suffering. The Buddha never claimed that he was immuned
to suffering but that he did claim that he could live with it in peace and
that he attained a peace that was completely natural to human beings. He
never claimed that this was supernatural in the way that we monotheists think
of God as above nature. This was what anyone can do. A God hadn't given it
to him. A human being could do it himself. This was a human beings full
You'd come across it by yoga in large part and you'd find this peace and
enhancement of your being rather as we watch, say, a ballet dancer or an
athlete doing impossible things with his or her body because of this extreme
skill and training, but with this, we're learning how to do equally difficult
things with their mind, train their minds to gain this fuller potential which
they said was how a human being should really be if he was using up all his
GROSS: How would you compare the concept of nirvana or enlightenment with the
concept of heaven and Christianity?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, heaven in Christianity is a sort of place as it were to
which people repair after death. And we've often thought about it in rather
naturalistic terms. Of course, when you think about heaven in a more serious
theological way, you're introduced into the presence of God and nobody knows
what this could possibly be like. Now that position is nearer to nirvana.
Buddha always refused to define nirvana, just as the best Jews, Christians and
Muslims have refused to define God because our normal words and concepts and
ideas just can't bear any relation to this absolute reality. It has to be
experienced, sensed within yourself. But it can't be described to people who
haven't been through the Buddhist regime and monotheists, the best Jewish,
Christian and Muslim theologians have said the same about God, that you can't
define God, that God and heaven, the ultimate salvation lies beyond anything
that we can know.
Some people think that Buddhists went into sort of extinction after death but
that's not true. They said that there was some form of existence and you
couldn't define it, you couldn't talk about it. It was beyond the reach of
words, so you'd better not talk about it. It was just not useful. It was
what the Buddha would say was inappropriate. It was an inappropriate question
to ask what is nirvana.
GROSS: Do you know what some of the desires were that the Buddha wanted to
transcend? What were some of the temptations that he struggled with?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, with the concept of desire, we sometimes feel a bit
daunted when we say we've got to get rid of desires because our desires can be
wonderful things--I mean, the desire for spirituality, the desire for art or
beauty. But the Buddha was saying all those desires which make us say, `I
want,' that make us look at things and see things only from our own point of
view, that greed in us--he often called desire greed or craving that makes us
yearn for something else.
BOGAEV: Karen Armstrong speaking with Terry Gross. Armstrong's new book is
"Buddha." We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. I'm Barbara
Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
BOGAEV: Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new set of recordings by the blues
guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. Also, reaching enlightenment. We continue our
conversation with religion scholar Karen Armstrong about the pivotal moment in
Buddha's life. He's the subject of Armstrong's new biography.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.
Let's return to Terry's interview with religion scholar Karen Armstrong. Her
new book, "Buddha," is a biography of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who attained
nirvana. Gautama was born to a wealthy family in northern India centuries
before the birth of Christ. He left his wife and infant son to seek spiritual
enlightenment. Armstrong's other books include "The Battle for God," "A
History of God" and "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths."
GROSS: Now you say that the Buddha was convinced that his childhood
experience of pure joy offered a key to nirvana. What did he think that key
was? Why did he look back on his childhood like that?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, he had a sort of Proustian memory. He just felt
he'd come to the end of the road. He'd left Alarah Kalama's sect. He tried
another teacher, and that didn't work. He could not accept any of these
teachers' interpretation of his religious experience. And he suddenly called
to himself, `There must be another way to enlightenment than this.'
Henceforth, he'd rely on himself.
And then, out of the blue, he remembered an experience he'd had when he was a
very little boy. His father had taken him to see the ceremonial plowing of
the first field in the springtime and had joined in the plowing and left
little Gautama, little Siddhartha, under a tree. And there are several
versions of this story, but one of them says that the little boy looked at the
grass that had been cut in the course of the plowing and noticed that these
young shoots of young grass had been cut down and that there were little
insects and eggs in this that were now all dying. And he felt a pang of pure
disinterest and grief and compassion for them, and compassion is something we
haven't talked about yet, which is very important in Buddhism.
But despite this pure sorrow, it was a beautiful day, and the Buddha suddenly
composed himself. He was a natural little yogin, the story goes, and he
composed himself in the position of a yoga and fell from a state of joy. He
was just happy and contented, and he fell into a trance.
Now, later, just as he'd uttered this despairing cry, `There must be another
way to enlightenment,' he remembered this experience. Ever since he'd left
his father's house six years before, he'd practiced fearful penances. He'd
fought against all his desires. He'd fought against his human nature, but he
said that was a very natural thing; it was a very human thing to do. `I was
a little boy. I didn't know anything about yoga, but I naturally did it.'
Perhaps nirvana is something much more natural to us, and perhaps instead of
fighting our human nature, we can actually cultivate some of these
experiences, like that disinterested joy, like that compassion for other
beings, and perhaps that will bring us to enlightenment, and that was his
Henceforth, he wouldn't subject himself, he said, to any more miserable
penances. Joy could bring you to nirvana, too, as long as your joy wasn't
selfish and greedy. And compassion would bring you to nirvana, the
disinterested sympathy and empathy for all other beings, which makes you push
your own ego out of the way and place other beings in the center of your
GROSS: Is there a story of how the Buddha finally gained enlightenment?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, there are several stories. In the Pali scriptures
which are the most authoritative scriptures, the account of the Buddha's
enlightenment is, really, rather technical. If you're not a practiced yogin,
it's rather baffling to read. But there are other stories which dwell on the
more mythical elements of the story to show what was going on spiritually. It
said that the Buddha decided that he was now or never going to make the last
go for enlightenment, so he went and sat one night under a Bodhi tree, one of
the trees of India, and there, he practiced his yogic exercises and fell into
a trance. And there, he had that night an insight that changed him forever
and which made him convinced that he'd found the way to enable human beings to
live at peace amidst all the sufferings of this world; that he was now a man
who'd woken up to his full potential. He was a Buddha.
And so that was the moment of his enlightenment. But it's very difficult to
say what this insight was because, of course, it's not really conceptually
possible define it, though he did have a shot at it when he tried to teach his
GROSS: How did his life change after he reached enlightenment? How did he
spend his time differently? How did he teach differently?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, his first instinct was he felt at peace. He felt
liberated. He felt utterly joyful. But he just wanted to sit and enjoy that
at first, and when he thought that perhaps he ought to go and teach, he felt
he didn't want to do that. He said, you know, `No one's going to understand
this. It'll be tiresome, disappointing, troublesome. People won't want to
give up themselves. It'll be pointless.'
And then there's a really beautiful story. We are told that the God Brahma
in the highest heaven of all was utterly dismayed when he heard this because
in the Buddhist ideology, gods need to be taught by the Buddha, just as much
as human beings, how to attain this final peace. And he came down from his
highest heaven, and reversing the normal roles of God and man, he knelt before
the enlightened man and prayed to him and said, `Lord, please look at the
world. Look at this suffering world drowning in suffering, sorrow and pain
and bring relief. If you don't do that, the world is lost. The world is
And then we're told that the Buddha surveyed the world with the eye of a
Buddha and felt compassion. And that's crucial because a Buddha must feel
compassion. And he saw that compassion had been such an essential part in his
journey towards enlightenment, the whole dynamic of the experience he'd had
impelled him back into the world, back into the marketplace to bring relief to
suffering human beings. Henceforth, he always insisted enlightenment was not
something you hugged selfishly to yourself. To live morally was to live for
And so for the next 45 years until he was 80 years old, he tramped through the
roads of India, often sleeping rough, teaching to everybody he met--men,
women, merchants, kings, poor people, everybody--to bring them enlightenment,
and he made a lot of converts.
BOGAEV: Karen Armstrong. Her new book is a biography of the "Buddha." We'll
hear more in a bit. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, we're featuring an interview Terry Gross
recorded with religion scholar Karen Armstrong. Her new book is "Buddha."
GROSS: How did the Buddha die?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, when he was 80 years old, his health began to fail.
Eighty years old was quite an age for someone in India at that time. But the
account of his death is sorrowful. He was not sorrowful. He was full of
peace and acceptance and thinking only of others as usual. But it was a
lonely death. He'd lived all his life surrounded by huge crowds of people.
He was the friend of kings, of noblemen, merchants, powerful people, loved to
come and see him. But his death was lonely and solitary. It seems as though
he and his faithful companion, Ananda, his cousin who was his companion and
personal attendant for 20 years, seemed to head off the map away from the big
powerful cities into the jungle. And there was no other senior member of the
order present. The last years of the Buddha's life stressed the aggression
and sorrow of society, of the society that he was trying in his own way to
So you have the sense of the great frailty and loneliness of old age as the
Buddha and Ananda head off, two old men with some young monks, into the
jungle. He's ill for some time, but then he's given a dish of some kind of
food. We're not quite sure what it is, but he has a terrible bout of food
poisoning. And he dies but with great peace and affirming to his companions
that this is not the end and the fact that he is leaving them is just not
important because each of them must rely on themselves and not on him. And
finally, his last words to them were, `All things pass away, myself included.
Seek your salvation with diligence,' and then he fell into a coma and died.
GROSS: Why was he in the jungle?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: We don't know. It's as though there'd been a lot of violence
in his life recently. One of his greatest friends was a king who had died a
horrible death, been killed by his own son. Another king had also been
savagely put down by his own retainers. The kingdoms were beginning even more
violence as they extended their territories. And the last thing the Buddha
heard was that one of these kingdoms was about to invade a small neighboring
republic. And it's as though he almost recoiled from this violence and went
off out into the jungle, as though he's now saying, `Now I am leaving the
world behind and going off on my own.'
His disciples were worried about this, and, you know, at the end, his beloved
attendant Ananda said, `Lord, don't die in this miserable jungle backwater,
this one-horse town, you know. Go to one of the great cities.' But Buddha
was not concerned with those kind of trappings of prestige, and a Buddhist can
never be content with what he has already achieved. He must always be going
on to something greater, go on into the unknown.
GROSS: Now there is Buddhist iconography. I mean, everyone's familiar with
the sculpture of the potbellied Buddha. What is the place of that iconography
within Buddhism, and what is specific of the place of that type of sculpture?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, at first, there was very little iconography of the
Buddha because it was felt that the Buddha had gone, as it were, you know? He
was now in a completely different state. So to imagine him as an ordinary
human being or depict him as a human being was really rather retrograde. It
was clinging to something that had passed and was over. But by about the
first century, you have these images of the Buddha in contemplation, the
Buddha as an enlightened being, and each person depicts him in their own
cultural idioms. I think the potbellied Buddhist is a Chinese ideal. In
fact, there are much more sort of graceful, shapely Buddhas in India.
The idea is to be an inspiration. By looking at that man lost in
contemplation, serene, you are learning what all human beings are capable of.
We can all be like the Buddha. We're not meant to sort of bow down and
worship him, but it's meant to be an incentive to act.
GROSS: You say in your biography of the Buddha that you think Buddhism fits a
modern sensibility. What do you mean by that?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think there are all kinds of aspects of Buddhism
which are appealing to the modern world. First of all, it's very, very
practical. The Buddha had no time, as I've said, for rigid doctrines. Even
his own teachings, he said, `You must be skeptical about them. You must test
them out and see if they work.' He had no time for abstruse metaphysics,
abstruse theology. He said, `These things won't help you.' What he was doing
was giving you a program. So that practical, empirical, if you like, tenor to
Buddhism is attractive.
Similarly, the stress on self-reliance, the refusal to revere authority
figures, the refusal to take things on faith or take things on second-hand but
to make sure that you yourself can affirm a teaching with not just taking
somebody else's word for it. That, again, is very, very, I think, congenial
to us in our modern society where we place great stress on self-reliance and
human dignity and on freedom from subservience.
I think, too, the stress on compassion--all the great world religions teach
that compassion is the most important of all the religious virtues, but we
keep losing sight of this and stressing other more peripheral concerns, and
that, I think, is hugely important to us. And people who are recoiling from
the intolerance and unkindness of much institutional religion will find the
Buddha's compassion and tolerance, I think, very attractive and appealing.
And I think the Buddha's energy, his determination to find his own solution to
a spiritual crisis, a crisis similar to our own, and not necessarily just rely
slavishly on old authorities or authority figures but to branch out, find
something fresh. That, again, is appealing to the modern sensibility.
GROSS: Karen Armstrong is a scholar of the religions of the world. You go to
mosques and synagogues and churches. I'm wondering what aspects of Buddhism
you've most incorporated into your life?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I know--my sister's a Buddhist and has been a Buddhist for 30
years, so Buddhism is in the family. But I know that I would be hopeless at
yoga. I tried meditation for years in my convent, and I really flunked at it.
It's not my thing. But I think what I've taken on board from Buddha is the
importance of compassion. The Buddha said that compassion, which demands a
divestment of selfishness, will lead you to the enlightenment that is the goal
of the spiritual life. And I've come to be absolutely certain that he's
right. Other religions teach that, too, but I think with--the Buddha's
emphasis is on this. And the utter humanity and kindness of his own bearing
towards other people has been an inspiration for me, and I suppose that's how
I'm going forward at the moment, concentrating on that, as it were,
GROSS: One last question. You said you flunked at meditation. Meditation in
the way that I understand it has a lot to do with silencing the mind and
silencing the chatter of the mind. Being the intellectual that you are and
the scholar that you are and the repository of history that you are, do you
find it hard to silence that mind, 'cause that mind is, you know, perhaps your
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I know. Yes. And I think now I've evolved a form of prayer
which I believe is rather Jewish, which is through study. While I'm studying
and engrossed in grappling with text and history, sacred history very often, I
will get moments of transcendence and awe and wonder, which my rabbinical
colleagues tell me is what they experience when they study Talmud or Torah.
So that's the kind of meditation that I can do. I wasn't good at silencing my
mind in that way. And largely, the kind of methods of meditation I was
teaching, was being a taught as a young girl was not right for me. And I
think the Buddha, again, would say here, `You've got to find a form of
spirituality, a form of yoga that's absolutely right for you and not just do
what everyone else is doing.'
So a bit of both. I think it left me, my whole failure with meditation, with
such a sense of weariness and failure that the thought of sitting silently now
fills me with a kind of dread.
GROSS: Well, Karen Armstrong, I thank you so much for talking with us about
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you.
BOGAEV: Karen Armstrong spoke recently with Terry Gross. Her new biography
Coming up, the music of blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. This is FRESH
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Analysis: New three-CD set "Demons & Angels"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
The folk revival of the early '60s boosted the careers of many forgotten blues
performers. Most of these rediscovered blues guitarists played the eery
introspective Mississippi Delta-style blues. But one of the most popular
figures on the folk festival circuit was the blind Reverend Gary Davis, who
finger picked in the ragtime-based Piedmont style. A new three-CD anthology
of Davis' work called "Demons & Angels" is now available. Music critic Milo
Miles explains why Reverend Davis' picking keeps guitarists coming back for
Unidentified Man: Give us that ...(unintelligible).
Reverend GARY DAVIS: Oh, boy. See here where you kick off five.
(Soundbite of music)
MILO MILES reporting:
From the time Gary Davis was 15 years old in 1911 until he was taken up by the
coffeehouse crowd in the late 1950s, he played for money on the street. To
keep at such a job for so long, you have to be driven and dedicated. To
survive doing it, you have to be mighty good. The Reverend Gary Davis was all
that. But unlike most blues obsessives, Davis burned with holy fire. He
would read his braille Bible through the night, preach as much as he played on
the sidewalk, talk about being prepared to die until people made him stop.
But the tunes from his voice and guitar would compel any heathen to sit
through a sermon or two. Reverend Davis did supplement his income as a street
musician by teaching guitar, especially after he moved to Harlem in 1944. He
recorded the overwhelming majority of his records in his 60s and 70s after
he was rediscovered. Around the same time, he began to pick up some pretty
famous students. Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, Jerry Garcia, Taj Mahal and Jorma
Kaukonen all took lessons from Davis. Supposedly, he always said, `You've
got the money, baby?' before he began. But it was only $5 for a session that
might last all afternoon with maybe a quick sermon thrown in.
Rev. DAVIS: Now I'm going to play a piano a little bit. You-all would like
to hear a piano? I've been picking a guitar a long time, but I'm going to
play a piano now.
(Soundbite of music)
MILES: Reverend Davis' deaf inventive finger picking in many styles and keys
put him in an elite circle of blues guitar masters that include Blind Blake,
Blind Willie McTell and Lonnie Johnson. In the number we just heard, Reverend
Davis explicitly underscored the influence of ragtime piano on his playing.
But it was more than a matter of notes and rhythms. He radiated the majestic
ease of a ragtime virtuoso, precise and surprising in all tempos. He could
vary the mood of a religious tune from stern to frightened to almost joyous.
So his numerous re-recordings are more fascinating than average blues remakes.
Perhaps, Gary Davis' most important student was a superb guitarist, Stefan
Grossman, who has done more to preserve his teacher's legacy than anyone.
Grossman assembled the anthology called "Demons & Angels: The Ultimate
Collection," though the title is misleading because it's not a be-all and
end-all. Newcomers should try a couple of other albums. The first is
"Complete Early Recordings," which dates from the '30s and '40s before cigars
and singing over New York traffic roughened his voice. Another is "Harlem
Street Singer" from 1960, which includes a roaring version of his signature
tune "Samson and Delilah" and my favorite, "Death Don't Have No Mercy."
Rev. DAVIS: (Singing) Death don't have no mercy in this land. Death don't
have no mercy in this land. It come to your house and it won't stay long, you
look in the bed and somebody'd be gone. Death don't have no mercy in this
land. And death will go in any family...
MILES: For confirmed Davis fans, "Demons & Angels" is his most diverse
collection ever and includes several definitive treatments and rare numbers.
And, yes, it has quite a few of his off-color secular blues which he was
reluctant to perform but obviously enjoyed once he got going. There's even
his own kind of gangster number, "She Wouldn't Say Quit." So the information
and entertainment is there with "Demons & Angels." You just have to ask
yourself, `You got the money, baby?'
BOGAEV: Milo Miles is a music writer based in Cambridge. He reviewed "Demons
& Angels," a new collection of the music of Reverend Gary Davis.
Rev. DAVIS: You should have talked about the sun of my life, not the
meridian sun that shine by day.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Rev. DAVIS: (Singing) Well, the sun is going down. Well, the sun is going
down. Well, the sun is going down. Oh, Lord, the sun is going down. We've
got find somewhere to go. Yeah, better find somewhere to go. Lord, better
find somewhere to go before the sun simply goes.
Lord, your house is burning down. Well, your house is burning down. Well,
your house is burning down. Oh, I say your house is burning down. You better
get some wine and bread. You better get some wine and bread. You better get
some wine and bread.
Yeah, your time's gonna end. Well, your time is gonna end. Well, your time
is gonna end. Oh, I say, your time is gonna end. You better get rid of your
sins. You better get rid of your sins. You'd better get rid of your sins.
Oh, I said, get rid of your sins.
BOGAEV: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.